Chapter Forty-Four: Part 1

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Haverford sighed over the thick report he was reading, and rubbed at the ache over his eyebrow. Penchley's excellent handwriting was a virtue that made up for a multitude of sins of groveling and boot-licking, but Penchley had not written this report, nor would he see it.

The Wakefield agent in Paris, whose work it was, had a hand that resembled the dazed wanderings of a spider damaged by a close encounter with an inkwell.

He rubbed his brow again. The headache hadn't lifted in four weeks, and its name was Abersham. Harburn. Haverford had kept not been able to keep the encounter in Paris secret, but he had told no one but his wife and his brother Wakefield that Toad had proposed.

Just as well. If he'd let Nick know, or Bella, they would be planning a wedding, and Sally would follow the degenerate scoundrel at the crook of a finger with or without the Wellbridge or the Haverford blessing, despite the number of her cousins he had invited to visit so she was never alone. Just as her aunt Jessica had run away with the bastard who had killed her.

"Is Mr Penchley not with you?" Cherry asked from the doorway.

"I sent him home." Haverford held out his hand, and shifted back from his desk so that he could pull his wife onto his lap. Tucked against his shoulder, his cheek resting on her hair, she put both arms inside his coat and around him.

"You are working too hard," she scolded. "Will you not come up to bed, my love?"

The headache, which had eased in her presence, stabbed anew. "I have the report from Paris."

Cherry sat up, the cosy moment over. "And?"

Haverford shook his head. "Not good, Cherry. David says he wants to discuss the finding with me. He says that the evidence is hearsay and circumstantial. But Cherry, our little girl!"

"Listen to your brother, Anthony. I cannot reconcile the rumours you've heard with the boy we know. Something is not right about these stories."

"But Harburn confirmed them himself." He reached out one hand for the report he had put down when Cherry joined him. "And this adds weight. An interview with the comtesse. Another with the gendarme who saw the room they purportedly used. Yes, the rest are rumours, but three witnesses? And one of them Harburn himself?"

David Wakefield spoke from the shadows by the French doors, beyond the circle of light from the gas lamps. "From what you said, Harburn agreed with your vague accusations. You didn't specify the depravities of which he stood accused, and the boy may not be technically an innocent, but—begging your pardon, Cherry—he is English enough to regard anything other than one-on-one standard-issue copulation as depraved."

Haverford waved an impatient hand. "Perhaps. But how to prove it? And what of your agent's report? Your own agent, David."

"The comtesse is a lying snake who hates Harburn; that's in the report, too. And the gendarme hints that he was paid to tell his story, and will continue to tell it the same way. Give me a bit more time, Haverford. I am hunting for the English students whose names Penchley gave you."

"You have your time. We're going to the Coventon wedding this week. My niece, who is also Bella's cousin, is marrying the new marquess, and our womenfolk have declared that the Coventons are to be rehabilitated in Society, now that the scandals have passed with the last generation."

"A whole ten days in the country," Cherry purred. "No Mr Penchley, no foreign office papers, and no visiting cousins falling over each other pretending not to be guarding Sally."

"I'll not have Harburn carrying her off." Haverford shook his head against Cherry's glare and David's raised eyebrow. "Prove him innocent of these charges, David, if innocent he is. I'll be able to look my dearest friend in the eye again, and dance at my daughter's wedding with the greatest of joy. But until then, we keep Sally close and thank God that Harburn has gone about his own business. I hope somewhere far away."


***


"Etcetera," Sally said to her cousin, "would you care to see the early roses? They are very good this year."

Etcetera, bless him, asked no questions. Nor did he tease. He just rose to his considerable height, offered his arm, and allowed Sally to carry him off for a private conversation.

As soon as they were out of earshot of the other members of the family, many of whom appeared to be camping out in in the Haverford's private living rooms, she approached her subject. She needed an ally, and Etcetera would never betray either her or Toad.

"We leave tomorrow for the Coventon wedding, and will be gone ten days," she told him. "Are you coming, Etcetera?

"Just for the wedding. I am training down to Hampshire the evening before, and back to London after the wedding breakfast."

Excellent. If Toad arrived and she was not in London, he would be sure to call on his best friend. "I need to show you something." She took Toad's letter from her pocket, and waited anxiously while he read it.

"If he comes to see you while I am gone, will you let him know where I am?"

"Yes, and come to Gosport with him to help steal you away." He hesitated for a moment. "Can I assume you mean to go with him?"

Sally raised both brows. She had worked hard to keep her feelings hidden from the vultures of Society, but she never imagined her own family would be fooled. "Of course. I have loved David all my life, Niko." Nicknames seemed silly for such a solemn declaration.

"And he you. He made me swear when we were sixteen that I would never pursue you, because he always intended to court you himself, and win you for his bride."

Since he was sixteen? That Christmas when he came home from his travels, gave her the best present she had ever received, and spent the holidays avoiding her? He had thought of marriage even then? Her smile was a thing of the chest and the heart. If only she had known!

Etcetera was polite enough to ignore her preoccupation. "Very well, cousin, I am your friend in this. And if I am not at home, my servants will have instructions to give Toad a room, and a note from me with your direction."

They strolled the garden for another half hour, speaking of Toad and wondering what was keeping him. Etcetera was sure he would arrive any day, and Sally returned inside with renewed hope, and lulled herself to sleep that night imagining the scene when Toad arrived in Gosport. Being abducted from a wedding would be wildly romantic.

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